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IT set to dominate European patents debate

Initial findings published, hearing next week

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The European Commission has published the initial findings from its public consultation on Europe's patent system, revealing deep divisions within the business community on how best to proceed, but also a consensus that something must be done.

The findings have been published ahead of a public hearing in Brussels on 12 July.

Despite the consultation not being specific to software patents, the IT industry was by far the largest group that responded, either as individuals or as part of lobby groups. The pharmaceutical sector was the next largest voice, but was still dwarfed by the technologists' response, illustrating just what an important issue this has become for developers, large and small.

The commission received more than 2,500 replies to its consultation, of which it says nearly 1,500 were from individuals. The remainder were from lobby groups and industry associations.

Broadly, there is agreement that the way patents are handled in Europe should be improved: nearly everyone who responded is happy with the idea of a community patent. However, the current proposal has been "universally rejected" because of an "unsatisfactory language regime and inadequate jurisdictional arrangements".

The main themes that will be debated at the meeting next week are the balance of cost and quality, how to promote innovation, and which language any pan-European system should be administered in.

The crux of the issue for many is how to make the system accessible and affordable, while keeping the quality of patents issued high. Both The Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure (FFII), and IT industry association EICTA agree that this is vital, but their approaches are different:

EICTA says the key to this lies in a review of the inventive step requirement, a more rigorous quality control system, and better searching of prior art.

In a statement endorsed by over 1,000 people, the FFII says the priority of any patenting system has to be the promotion of innovation and the dissemination of knowledge.

The deepest division is over language. One camp is in favour of a single language regime, with all patents being issued in English. But the rest want a multi-language system, with each patent being translated into the language of each country. Patent lawyers mostly fall into the second group.

The lawyers were most concerned about the cost/quality balance, but also stressed that a decent patent system is far from the only thing needed to promote innovation.

All these groups will be meeting to debate these issues, and the rest, in Brussels next week. Forty representatives from the 2,500 respondents will make presentations, and delegates will also hear from Commissioner Charlie McCreevy, and Alain Pompidou, the head of the European patent office. ®

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